Hyper Light Drifter pixelates a beautiful dystopia

hldA series of visions assault you: A sparkling city, a terrible weapon, crumbling titans, a forest of monolithic towers, a sea of blood and bones, a dark mass, a lone drifter.

Hyper Light Drifter releases you into this world without context or explanation, leaving it up to the player to decipher its past and future. You rise from your stormy lakeside camp and set out.

Immediately, Hyper Light Drifter creates a powerful and engaging atmosphere. The soundtrack sets a somber tone, fitting of the games ruined world. The pixel art, superbly done, employs a vibrant color palette that only adds to the surreal quality of the game while acting as a stark counterpoint to the morbidity hiding in plain sight. The snowy peaks and soothing ponds are dotted with corpses new and old. Gore spatters adorn silent rooms, allowing dread to seep through the otherwise cheerful visuals.

As these images of fragile mortality might imply, death will find you often in HLD if you do not fight to defend yourself. From robots, to beasts, to avian cultists and amphibian ninjas, the player will utilize the tight and fluid combat controls to deal out pain at a blistering pace.

Similar to Dark Souls, the enemies of HLD are numerous and powerful. A handful of attacks are enough to bring your journey to a premature end, sending the player back to the last checkpoint with all foes respawned and ready to ruin your day. Bosses are properly challenging, but follow strict patterns that can be exploited.

The drifter’s tools of the trade are few and simple, but have enough upgrades to keep things interesting. You’ll be using sword, gun, and lightning speed to navigate the dangers of the world. A hit and run style is recommended, stopping only to strike your enemy and then dashing away.

However, even a master slayer needs all the help they can get, and that aid can be found tucked away in the myriad secret places all over the game world.

The drifter’s world consists of a central city and four cardinal zones split into quadrants. Each zone is accessible from the start, so the order in which challenges are tackled is up to the player. It may be wise to dip your toe into each in order to find as many secrets as possible before attempting the boss encounters. The paths to these hidden areas are often marked by small squares in the floor and can contain health packs, golden gearbits, triangular core modules, key fragments, lore tablets, guns, and alternate outfits.

Collecting four golden gearbits coverts them into one unit of currency that can be spent at various shops for upgrades, and modules/fragments can be collected to unseal special doors leading to even more mysterious secrets.

So far, the most alluring aspect of Hyper Light Drifter for me is that sense of exploration and intrigue. Fans of FEZ might agree that HLD has a very similar feel. I’m constantly mentally cataloging every bizarre scrap of information I can find in the hopes that I’ll eventually get a glimpse of the bigger picture of what’s really going on.

There is little to no dialogue. NPCs speak only in pictures. The world itself tells its story, but only to those with a keen eye.

I’m hard pressed to come up with anything that I dislike about the game. Checkpoints aren’t too uncommon and while the overall difficulty is punishing, it’s still fair. The combat system has depth, but it’s fun and easy to learn. The graphics (if pixels don’t bother you) are beautiful and the soundtrack is stellar across the board. Paths to bosses are generally linear, but you’re given plenty of freedom to explore side paths and other quadrants at your leisure.

If I absolutely had to pick out a negative, it would be the semi-hidden soccer minigame and how it made me curse the name of whichever evil genius created it. Fortunately, unless you’re achievement hunting, you don’t lose out on much by ignoring that entire realm of despair.

As my current obsession, and at a price point that won’t make your wallet weep, Hyper Light Drifter comes highly recommended.